Sunday, 20 January 2008

Penguin Great Ideas Series

Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are.

When Penguin released their Great Ideas Series, I have to admit that I bought the books for their covers. I did always mean to read them too, however, and so in 2008 (and 2009) I'm going to read two 'great ideas' a month for 20 months. I'll be picking them at random and will blog a review of each as I go along. Click on a link below to see which ones I've reviewed so far...

    Series 1 (Red)
  1. Seneca - On the Shortness of Life
  2. Marcus Aurelius - Meditations
  3. St Augustine - Confessions of a Sinner
  4. Thomas a Kempis - The Inner Life
  5. Niccolo Machiavelli - The Prince
  6. Michel de Montaigne - On Friendship
  7. Jonathan Swift - A Tale of a Tub
  8. Jean-Jacques Rousseau - The Social Contract
  9. Edward Gibbon - The Christians and the Fall of Rome
  10. Thomas Paine - Common Sense
  11. Mary Wollstonecraft - A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  12. William Hazlitt - On the Pleasure of Hating
  13. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels - The Communist Manifesto
  14. Arthur Schopenhauer - On the Suffering of the World
  15. John Ruskin - On Art and Life
  16. Charles Darwin - On Natural Selection
  17. Friedrich Nietzsche - Why I Am So Wise
  18. Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own
  19. Sigmund Freud - Civilization and its Discontents
  20. George Orwell - Why I Write

    Series 2 (Blue)
  21. Confucius - The First Ten Books
  22. Sun-tzu - The Art of War
  23. Plato - The Symposium
  24. Lucretius - Sensation and Sex
  25. Cicero - An Attack on an Enemy of Freedom
  26. The Revelation of St. John the Divine and The Book of Job
  27. Marco Polo - Travels in the land of Kubilai Khan
  28. Christine de Pizan - The City of Ladies
  29. Baldesar Castiglione - How to Achieve True Greatness
  30. Francis Bacon - Of Empire
  31. Thomas Hobbes - Of Man
  32. Sir Thomas Browne - Urne-Burial
  33. Voltaire - Miracles and Idolatry
  34. David Hume - On Suicide
  35. Carl Clausewitz - On the Nature of War
  36. Soren Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling
  37. Henry David Thoreau - Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
  38. Thorstein Veblen - Conspicuous Consumption
  39. Albert Camus - The Myth of Sisyphus
  40. Hannah Arendt - Eichmann and the Holocaust

Review: Travels in the Land of Kubilai Khan by Marco Polo

Travels in the Land of Kubilai KhanThis is the first book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 27 in the list and part of series two (the blue series).

My first thought when reading this book was that it's not really an idea as such, it's a description. My second thought was that it would've been nice to have some background to give the book context. My third thought was 'Duh! You have the internet and google skillz. Go find the background for yourself!'

Which I did :-)

Marco Polo, a Venetian, traveled to China in 1271 and returned back to Venice in 1291. I have vague recollections of reading a book about him, which argued that he never actually got as far as China when I was traveling to China myself in 1999 (a long time ago now :-). This is a relatively recent argument, based on omissions in Polo's description and the fact that there are no records of him serving Kublai Khan. However, I can appreciate why even the first readers of the book describes it as being filled with 'a million lies'. Polo's descriptions are extraordinary. Kublai Khan, who is by now relatively old (60-ish) lives a life of hunting and feasts, wives and concubines. Khan has hundreds of thousands of soldiers, four wives, a rotating roster of concubines, ten thousand hounds and a palace that can be taken down and constructed at will. I found it hard to believe he got any work done! Despite claims of falsehood, Polo's book was still remarkably influential, and widely popular hundreds of years before the advent of modern printing.

This book does not tell the whole of Polo's travels in China (Cathay). As far as I can tell, it is in fact book two of four. Despite my skepticism of the veracity of the contents, I do love the way that it's written. It's a very chatty style with lots of 'Oh!! I must tell you about...' and 'I almost forgot to mention...', which perhaps ties in with the fact that Marco Polo didn't actually write the book himself, but instead dictated it to Rustichello da Pisa (while Polo was in prison). While I don't feel that this 'great idea' has particularly changed or influenced me, I can appreciate that much of it's impact is probably lost after 700-odd years. Still, it was a enjoyable read and an easy introduction to the series.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

2008 Booklist

What I'm reading in 2008:
  1. Power without Glory, Frank Hardy (a slog)
  2. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle (not a slog!)
  3. War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells (wow)
  4. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie (self indulgent, but I still liked it :-) )
  5. Travels in the Land of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo (opulent)
  6. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis (love, Love, LOVE)
  7. The Bodysurfers, Robert Drew (languid)
  8. Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, Sue Townsend (flaccid)
  9. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (*wonderful*)
  10. The Inner Life, Thomas a Kempis (religious)
  11. Shade's Children, Garth Nix (slight)
  12. Mucha, Renate Ulmer (decorative)
  13. Peeps, Scott Westerfeld (fun!)
  14. Amy's Children, Olga Masters (bemusing)
  15. Eichman and the Holocaust, Hanna Arendt (thought provoking)
  16. Undead and Unemployed, Mary Janice Davidson (light but satisfying)
  17. White Time, Margo Lanagan (ok, but she's no Peter Carey)
  18. Black Juice, Margo Lanagan (not fussed about this one)
  19. Red Spikes, Margo Lanagan (*really* not fussed about this one)
  20. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, Sue Townsend (a great end to the bookbag)
  21. Odd One Out, Monica McInerney (bleh)
  22. The Encyclopedia of Fonts, Gwyn Headley (somewhat overwhelming, fontwise)
  23. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (not as good as I'd been lead to believe)
  24. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling (completion)
  25. The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (bookmarkable)
  26. War Crimes, Peter Carey (not as stunning as 'The Fat Man in History')
  27. The Art of War, Sun-tzu (poetry)
  28. The Pleasure of Hating, William Hazlitt (instructive)
  29. Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk (fun, but derivative)
  30. The Symposium, Plato (adorable!)
  31. Urn Burial, Kerry Greenwood (also fun, but not Agatha Christie)
  32. Splashdance Silver, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Pratchettesque)
  33. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (logical!)
  34. Cannery Row, John Steinbeck (charming!)
  35. Extras, Scott Westerfeld (notasgoodasthetrilogy)
  36. How to Achieve Greatness, Baldesar Castliglione (like the Symposium, but not as good)
  37. Rynosseros, Terry Dowling (enjoyable linked shorts)
  38. Tithe, Holly Black (haphazard)
  39. Blue Tyson, Terry Dowling (more good Dowling)
  40. The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards (the cover was better than the insides...)
  41. The Last Days, Scott Westerfeld (fawesome!)
  42. 2012, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne (solid)
  43. tiny deaths, Robert Shearmen(excellent)
  44. Prismatic, Edwina Grey (interesting)
  45. Wicked, Gregory Maguire (tedious)
  46. Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang (very good, but didn't meet (very) high expectations)
  47. Moon Palace, Paul Auster (short, but lengthy)
  48. The Other Boleyn Girl, Phillipa Gregory (historically edifying)
  49. Until I Find You, John Irving (satisfying)
  50. Cenotaxis, Sean Williams (non-plussing)
  51. Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch, Simon Haynes (unexpectedly amusing)
  52. SG1: The Barque of Heaven, Suzanne Wood (slashy!!)
  53. Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett (fun, but not groundbreaking)
  54. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (war. what is it good for?)
  55. Stardust, Neil Gaiman (*not* as good as the movie)
  56. The Six Sacred Stones, Matthew Reilly(as expected)
  57. SG1: Do No Harm, Karen Miller (a bit weird to read when sick myself, but otherwise good)
  58. His Illegal Self, Peter Carey (dreamy)
  59. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera (oblique)
  60. Amberlight, Sylvia Kelso (uninspiring)
  61. Death by Water, Kerry Greenwood (better than the first I read)
  62. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (Om)
  63. The Catarbie Conspiracy, Sabrina DeSouza(naive)
  64. Astropolis: Earth Ascendant, Sean Williams (space opera-ry goodness)
  65. Incandescence, Greg Egan (hard science)
  66. Daughters of Moab, Neil Gaiman (apocolyptic australiana)
  67. The Economy of Light, Jack Dann (interesting mishmash)
  68. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (nice use of London)
  69. Time Machines Reparied While-U-Wait, K. A. Bedford (time travelling mystery)
  70. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Sean Williams (a different kind of space opera)
  71. Without Warning, John Birmingham (depressing)
  72. Chao Space, Marianne de Pierres (aimless until the end)
  73. Jack Maggs, Peter Carey (excellent, plus subtext!! or mebbe I mean metatext)
  74. Time for the Stars, Robert Heinlein (twin paradox!!)
  75. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (zomg. excellent.)
  76. The Riddle and the Knight, Giles Milton (illuminating)
  77. The Music of Chance, Paul Auster (compelling)
  78. Daughters of Earth, Justin Larbalestier (ed.) (excellent)